In my last post I skipped over one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible (though I’m saying this so often it’s starting to lose meaning). Considering the last post dealt with genocide, I didn’t want to confuse the theme and I ran out of space. But I felt this story is too good to ignore (the title alone is worth it) so I figure I might as well write a post about it.
So the story begins in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers when Balak, the King of the Moabites, noticed that the Israelites were exterminating everyone they came across. Not wanting to be wiped off the face of the Earth, Balak does the only thing he can, which is to call for a priest named Balaam (with such similar names this might get a bit confusing). Apparently everything that Balaam blesses is blessed and if he curses someone, they will be destroyed.
However, what happens next is surprising. God comes to Balaam and tells him not to curse the Israelites. This is a special moment, because it is the first time in the Bible that God has appeared to someone other than the Israelites or their ancestors. One of the (many) things the Bible offers no explanation for is why God is supposed to be the God of all people, but only appears to one tiny tribe. No explanation is ever given as to why God doesn’t spread out and convince the whole world, which he could apparently do if he wanted. Had he done so he could have avoided the bloodshed and genocide of the previous chapters. Why didn’t God appear to Pharaoh or the Amorites? Wouldn’t it have been easier and more loving to convince them of a peaceful solution rather than massacring thousands?
Anyway, God tells Balaam not to go to Balak. So he refuses the first messenger but Balak sends messengers a second time. God gives Balaam permission to go, but tells Balaam to do everything he tells him. However, literally two sentences later God gets angry with Balaam for going, despite initially giving permission. God decides that the most appropriate way to deal with this is to send an angel with a sword to kill Balaam (what do believers make of these stories? How can they see a loving God in all this pointless cruelty?). For some reason only the donkey that Balaam is riding can see the angel so he turns away to avoid it. Balaam gets angry and starts hitting the donkey. Three times (of course it’s three times) the donkey turns away and three times Balaam hits him.
As if the story was strange enough, at this point God gives the donkey the ability to talk. The donkey then asks Balaam why he is hitting him, they argue for a bit and then God reveals the angel to Balaam. The angel tells Balaam that he would have killed him if the donkey hadn’t turned away from the path. Balaam offers to return home, but the angel tells him to keep going but to only do what he says (the angel and God seem to be the same person).
Let’s take a moment to figure out what just happened but there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. Why can donkeys see angels? Why did the donkey need to speak? Could it continue talking after the angel left? Did Balaam and his talking donkey go on a series of adventures that become the inspiration for the Shrek movies? How could God’s plan be so easily foiled by a slow moving donkey? Is it a good thing that God’s plan to kill Balaam failed? If so why did he plan it in the first place? Did God have any reason at all to want to kill Balaam or does he just kill for the fun of it? To be honest the story reads like a silly children’s story rather than anything with theological significance.
So Balaam eventually meets King Balak and prepares a sacrifice to curse the Israelites. However, in a shocking plot twist (not really) Balaam declares he cannot curse the Israelites as God is on their side. Three times (of course) he is asked to curse the Israelites but instead blesses them and predicts that they will destroy all the other nations. Then, without any explanation, everyone goes home and the story ends.
Now it should be obvious that this story didn’t really happen (how could the Israelites know if they weren’t there?). It’s clear that they invented the story to give justification to their destruction of the cities and claim that God had prophesised it (Interestingly, the Bible acts as though Balaam really did have magical powers and that had he cursed the Israelites, his curse would have come true). This story is effectively a piece of propaganda that the Israelites used to claim that God was on their side.
It does raise the interesting question as to why God almost never tries to speak to non-Israelites. Why is the creator of the universe limited to only one insignificant tribe? What makes him any different to the thousands of other tribal gods that were worshipped at the time? If God appeared to all people in the world, that would be solid evidence for his existence, that he only appears to one tribe, makes him seem like something they made up themselves. Why does God not tell all the people of the world about the rules he wants them to follow? Why does he not punish everyone for disobedience?
The talking ass doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, but perhaps it’s a metaphor for the whole Bible.
You might have noticed that this blog post is shorter than the other posts in the series so far. I would be interested in hearing some feedback on what you think. So far, I only get comments from less than 1% of my readers so most of the time I have no idea what you think of my blog (hence the name). Do you want the posts to be shorter or longer, more or less serious, more detailed or covering more ground? Let me know in a comment and/or on the new Facebook page and Twitter. For the rest of the series of An Atheist Reads The Bible, see here.